It is better to innovate and fall short than to stagnate and succeed. Every misstep is a small success, a burst of inspiration telling us what can be improved. That’s why it’s so peculiar to see something flop without other innovators coming to pick up the pieces. One such case is Spore, which by most accounts is a mediocre game, but a great tool. Is that a fair assessment though? After all, hindsight is 20/20. Let’s dive into the primordial ooze to see if Spore deserved its ho-hum reception.
Hype was certainly a major factor in the original reception. The free creature creator set the bar somewhere in the upper stratosphere. With all the parts at their disposal, players could create anything. Best of all was players could upload clips of their creations directly to YouTube. The result was a wildly successful demo that doubled as an engaging publicity stunt. Unfortunately, the creature creator represents only a small portion of the final product—less than a fifth.
Spore itself is essentially five vastly different character creation segments followed by a (mostly) aimless free mode. While you can jump into the space stage, completing the other stages nets small bonuses for your ship. As a result, the first four hours of Spore comprises rolling up your character. Unfortunately, the farther you go, the less unique your creature becomes.
Life starts at the cell stage, basically a microscope themed version of 2006’s Flow. This section showcases the most realistic version of evolution, though that’s not saying much. Enemy species are predetermined and each cell is designed to teach a new adaptation. This encourages players to frequently restructure their cell to give it the best chance of survival. It’s a great start for what could have been a combat puzzle game, but it’s over in about 10 minutes.
The rapid changing of stages, camera, and fundamentals of gameplay becomes a serious crux. Just as you finish what feels like a tutorial for the cell-stage, everything changes. Only a few minutes in, Spore morphs into a watered-down World of Warcraft. The already shaky evolution system turns into deliberate creation. You can glue anything to your creature so long as you have the parts and DNA points. There is one restriction, of course. You can only find mouths corresponding to what you ate in the cell stage.
The creature stage is arguably the weakest. You either eat other species into extinction or grow flowers on your body and throw prehistoric dance parties. Without poison launchers, combat is bare bones. You run up to a creature and mash the number pad until they’re dead. There’s no strategy and recruiting allies only makes it easier. It’s almost insulting. Likewise, charming other creatures amounts to a two-button Simon Says.
The creature stage’s creation mechanics are made worse by the “discovery” of new mutations. New body parts are randomly found in the world or gifted after killing the alpha of another tribe. It feels weak because they often don’t correspond to your creature’s theme. Are you playing as a fishman? Cool, here’s a grasshopper leg. Spore would have benefited from an unlock schedule to compliment your playstyle. It would be a simple change, since some parts already have a simple level-up structure. Instead, it showers you with random body parts and a DNA-based glue.
The other big issue with the creature stage is that aggressive species have a massive advantage over the toughest herbivores. This carries through to the RTS-style tribal stage. Combat abilities are demonstrably better than friendly abilities. An aggressive creature can add passive ranged attacks to their biology. A friendly creature can only wave their maracas and offer gifts.
This is the problem with prioritizing creation-style gameplay over simulated evolution. Because the world isn’t reactive to your playstyle, the only opposition to that race of armored, poison-spitting super predators is a tribe of dancing banana people. For this reason, it’s always better to min-max your creature with the best body parts and clothes, even if they’re just tacked on.
Unfortunately, your creature’s natural abilities don’t matter from the civilization stage onward. Your creature, no matter how perfect, is replaced with metal and wheels. Whatever the intention was, this stage turned out as a simplistic, real-time version of Sid Meier’s Civilization. Notably, there's no progression tree to vehicle creation or even a limiting budget, as in the creature stage. There’s no reason to build a steam-powered stagecoach when you can build a rocket car from the get-go.
This stage is an important lesson on why Meier’s Civilization is turn-based. Your society advances well before the others and has no fog of war. Since there’s no tech-tree or turn limit, the most obvious thing to do is create vehicles with maximum speed and claim the entire planet before the first opposing civilization invents the wheel. Now you control all the resources, all the money, and you can conquer the newbies with ease because they have no form of income. It’s like that mock-up for inequality Monopoly, but it’s even worse because you’re playing against bots.
If controlling the whole world before the others start playing isn’t insulting enough, you can use small bonuses from the previous stages to annihilate the competition. Are you a vicious carnivore through and through? Welcome to the civilization stage, here’s your complementary nuke. Perhaps more insulting is giving carnivore players a tool to conquer the entire planet.
This ties back to the main problem with Spore. It’s a mediocre game, but a great tool. In addition to vehicles, the civilization stage introduces city building. It’s your job to design avatars for housing, factories, and entertainment. It's easy and fun to get lost in constructing architectural monstrosities. Of course, the weakness with the building creator anything you make is only a stand-in. In terms of gameplay there’s no difference between that highly-detailed industrial flapjack factory and an opaque sphere. I don’t mean to sound uncreative, but there’s no reason to create elaborate buildings if you’ll be exploring the galaxy in 45 minutes.
After uniting the planet, you finally hit the space stage. You’re at the height of your evolution. This is everything you’ve been building up. The final frontier. Ultimately, the space stage is shallow and repetitive. Your creature is reduced to a portrait with a goobledeegook voice. Everything that made your species unique is swept under the rug. It also means everything building up to this point was just rolling up your character. It would be improper to describe previous stages as a tutorial because the space stage has nothing in common with previous eras.
The immediate problem with the space stage is that there’s not a lot to do. After completing the tutorial, you’re left with fetch quests, expensive colonizing, dealing with natural disasters, trading, and occasional space battles. It’s a lot of busy work without moving toward any ultimate goal.
The only way to complete the space stage is to travel to the center of the galaxy. To do that, you’ll need a lot of money and badges. This is a broken system. You may have enough cash to buy the planet killer weapon, but vendors won’t sell it to you unless you’ve conquered 50 planets and claimed 200 colonies. Each colony adds more busy work as you have to defend them from natural disasters and pirates. Even when your empire spans 1000 worlds, only you are capable of pruning the sick apple tree on Venturion VII. Suddenly, you’re not exploring the final frontier, you’re babysitting an entire species.
The other issue with the space stage is repetition. While the quests are essentially “kill this, collect that, build this,” that’s not the issue. Spore comes installed with thousands of creatures, buildings, and ships along with hundreds of thousands of player-uploaded creations in the online catalogue. Yet the space stage consists of about 12 species. Explore enough and you’ll find a race of mustachioed bananas who look exactly like those in your home sector. But this is a new species with their own home world, their own colonies, and a strict warrior doctrine. The illusion is shattered; the infinite expanse of the cosmos suddenly feels like a magic show.
Ultimately, Spore is shallow and occasionally frustrating. It’s a strong idea, but it lacks direction. The evolution system needed to decide between mutations and creation. There’s no real sense of progression because the fundamentals of gameplay are constantly changing. The first four stages of life are ultimately a character creator for a hollow and deceptively small space stage. It’s a bad game, but a fun tool and technically interesting. Spore did a lot for procedurally generated games and it encouraged players to think outside the box. Its heart pumps with creativity and imagination, but the gameplay is just a footnote.